Cryptocurrency is a digital currency recorded in a ledger of accounts and transactions between peers using a system of verification and encryption. All math and technical jargon aside, that is all there is to every cryptocurrency from bitcoin to litecoin.
How Does Cryptocurrency Have Value?
Just like any other currency from the US dollar to the money in your Paypal account, currency only has value because we say it has value. The same is true for cryptocurrency. We agree it has value, thus it can be traded for other things with value (such as real world goods and services). This is backed up further by the fact that it takes a work to confirm transactions, and that computational effort in and of itself is valuable.
Cryptocurrency Is Decentralized
Unlike traditional currencies, cryptocurrency is decentralized. Instead of one entity (such as a bank or central government) controlling the creation of money and keeping track of the ledger and accounts, each member of the community (each account holder) contributes to a single, public ledger of transactions and each member can create money through confirming transactions.
When a transaction is made, the spender and receiver each use a unique digital signature. A digital signature uses a public key (to create a signature and to send money to) and private key (used by others to verify the signature) that can be used to legitimize the transaction. This helps ensure that transactions are recorded correctly and that the spender owns the money they’re trying to spend. Time Stamping helps to ensure that the order of transactions is chronological. This is done by placing a group of transactions in a “block” that gets appended to the coin’s ledger. Everything in that block is considered to happen at the same time. Once a block is recorded, it is permanent and publicly visible.
Adding Transactions to the Ledger Is “Mining”
The entity that verifies the transaction and adds it to the ledger is called a “miner”. This is because when a transaction is added to the ledger, new coins are created and given to the entity as part of the fee (garnering the nickname “mining”).
To learn more about what mining is and how it works, visit our page on The Basics of Mining Cryptocurrency.
Example of Transferring Cryptocurrency
One of the best ways to learn about cryptocurrency is to see a real-world example. Let’s say Joe wants to buy a Pizze from Jane with a hypothetical cryptocurrency called FactCoin. Bellow, we’ll go through each of the steps that makes this possible.
Step 1: Joe and Jane Make a Transaction
In order for Joe to transfer 1 FactCoin, he sends out a transaction to every member of the FactCoin Network. In simple terms, this is a message to everyone with FactCoin accounts stating that he is transferring 1 FactCoin to Jane. To keep their identities safe, Joe use unique, encrypted codes that act as IDs for his FactCoin account and Jane’s FactCoin account. These accounts are often called addresses. Usually Joe and Jane will be using software to enable these transactions and to manage their accounts called a cryptocurrency wallet.
Step 2: FactCoin Miners Verify the Transaction
Everyone in the FactCoin network will receive the transaction that Joe sends out. Then, all of the FactCoin Miners – special members of the network who invest computational effort into verifying FactCoin transaction – compete to add that transaction to the ledger.
In order to add that transaction, they have to solve a complex math problem with the help of computers (this prevents Joe or Jane from being the one to write and record the transaction). The first one to solve the problem sends out a message to everyone who owns that coin type and declares that the transaction has been added. Everyone in the community then updates their ledger.
Step 3: Jane Gives Joe a Pizza
To be safe, Joe and Jane wait until the transaction is complete before exchanging the real world product or service, this helps avoid some potentially scamm-y things (like double spending) that can happen between the initial message and the confirmation of the transaction. The process usually takes about 10 minutes.
Once the transfer is recored in the ledger, the transaction is permanent. There is no way to recover lost funds or funds transferred in error. Jane gives Joe the pizza that he has now paid for, and the process is complete!